The history of Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 1 is almost as notable as the music itself. The 1897 premiere was a complete fiasco, poorly conducted by Glazunov and miserably received. "If there were a Conservatory in Hell," wrote César Cui, "Rachmaninov would certainly gain first prize for his symphony, so devilish are the discords he has dished up before us." Rachmaninov's reaction, beyond a nervous collapse, was to disown the work. However, the orchestral parts from that same premiere turned up after World War II, and the Symphony was revived as something of a historical curiosity.
Though far from the composer's best work -- he was but 23, and in the earliest stages of his career, at the time of its composition -- the Symphony is far from the unqualified failure suggested by its initial reception. It is, instead, a large, ambitious work that attempts to expand the bounds of the Russian symphony beyond the works of Tchaikovsky by incorporating music of the Russian Orthodox church.
The Symphony opens with a brief, introductory swirling motif that will signify Fate throughout the work. The first movement proper, Allegro ma non troppo, is an expression of storm and struggle, with climaxes that suggest the clangor of bells. Though dark and troubled, the Scherzo, marked Allegro animato, is colored with flashes of fantasy. The Larghetto is a poem in which love is overshadowed by the menace of the middle section. The "Fate" motive explodes at the beginning of the last movement, Allegro con fuoco, followed by a blazing fanfare that leads to another dramatic life-and-death struggle. At the end of the Symphony, the "Fate" figure hammers down again and again, obliterating all that has come before it.